Going to college is an important landmark in the life of a student. College life provides a sudden experience of freedom that was so far unavailable to students. With the newfound freedom, students aggressively pursue an active social life. Coupled with social activity lies academic pressure. Requirements of academics force students to stay awake at night to prepare for class. A combination of social activity and academic pressure invariably takes a toll on the sleep quality and quantity of students. They, therefore, become inevitably sleepy in class. A number of researchers have explored the aspects of sleepiness, sleep quality and quantity amongst college going students to discern patterns and relationships for necessary inferences. The studies have, in particular, tried to address the controversial issue of the relative importance of sleep quality versus sleep quantity.
June J. Pilcher, Douglas R. Ginter and Brigitte Sadowsky (1997) from Bradley University, found that on average, students were in bed for slightly more than seven hours, and took less than 30 minutes to go to sleep. They found health and well-being measures to be better related to sleep quality than sleep quantity. They found poor sleep quality to be significantly correlated with increased physical health complaints and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and confusion. According to them, “the correlation between the measures of sleep quantity and sleep quality was relatively small” (Pilcher, Ginter and Sadowsky, 1997, p. 587). They found increased sleepiness to be equally related to a decrease in sleep quality and sleep quantity through one measure, while a different yardstick did not reveal this relationship. The researchers also measured the degree to which the aspects of sleep quality and sleep quality overlapped. They found that estimated time asleep was moderately correlated to sleep quality measures. However, they considered this partial correlation to be of no significant impact. The researchers found no significant change in patterns of sleeplessness between the two studies, and concluded that the levels of sleepiness were attributable to external factors, rather than the academic timeline. Thus, the researchers argued for the relative importance of sleep quality over quantity, and attributed sleepiness more to external facets of college life rather than academic pressure (Pilcher, Ginter & Sadowsky, 1997).
Pilcher et al are, thus, representative of early efforts at determining the relative importance between sleep quality and quantity. Their preference of sleep quality over quantity set up the narrative for future debate on the subject. Pilcher et al’s first study involved only 30 students. While thirty is a scientifically proven number, as evidenced by the Central Limit Theorem in statistics, however, the representativeness could have been extended by including more participants so that the inferences could be more robust and devoid of possible error.
Michael T. Trockel, Michael D. Barnes and Dennis L. Egget (2000), from the Universities of Illinois and Utah, addressed the phenomenon of sleep deprivation through a wider canvas. In their study, they attempted to assess the impact of health-related variables on the academic performance of first-year college students. In their assessment, the health behaviors potentially affecting college students were exercise, sleep, nutritional habits, social support, spiritual health, and time and stress management techniques. They found that “weekday and weekend wake-up times had the largest relative effect on semester GPA” (p. 128). They found that for each hour of delay in the reported average weekday wake-up time, the predicted GPA decreased by 0.132 on a standard four-point GPA scale. They found that each hour of delay in average weekend wake-up time corresponded to a decrease in predicted GPA of 0.115. Using step-wise regression, they found that other indicators of health had decreasing relevance to GPA scores. In order of priority, the researchers found the health indicators to be weekday wake-up time, weekend wake-up time, work hours, study of spiritual material and strength straining to be relevant factors. The researchers discarded the possibility of the influence of alcohol on the delayed weekend wake-up times as the environment from which the students had been selected for the study was robustly monitored dormitories where students had little scope to hide drunkenness from college administrative staff. The researchers ascribed the relation between delayed wake-up times to decreased GPA to the supposition that waking up late corresponded to diminished ability to recall complex material learned in class previously. They proposed that the relationship seen between poor breakfast and academic performance had a link to late timings of waking up. They found a positive value between exercise and academic performance, unlike previous studies that had indicated that time spent on strength training impeded academic performance. They found little relevance of the time management techniques of using a planner with academic performance. Thus, they surmised that delayed wake-up times had a paramount importance in predicting academic performance. They, therefore, inferred that sleep quantity, as related to wake-up times, played a major role in predicting academic performance (Trockel, Barnes & Egget, 2000).
While Trockel et al commented upon wake-up time as an indicator of sleep deprivation, they sidestepped the critical issue of whether sleep quality or sleep quantity was more important. However, given the context of their study, it is safe to surmise that first year college students who woke up late would have invariably slept late, probably after social events. Thus, the focus of Trockel et al was on quantity of sleep in contrast to Pilcher et al. Trockel et al, however, fell short of providing a comprehensive cause and effect study to determine the reasons of sleep deprivation amongst students, an aspect that was made up in the future study by Hershner and Chervin (2014).
Nancy L. Galambos and Andrea L. Howard of the University of Alberta, and Jennifer L. Maggs of the University of Pennsylvania (2010) took into account prior studies that indicated that poor sleep quantity and quality affected academic performance, and the impact was most prevalent when adolescents entered their first year at university. They found a 45% variation in sleep quantity within participants as they went through the academic calendar, and a 55% variation between participants. They found gender to be a reliable predictor of sleep quantity, with men reporting longer sleep durations that women. While assessing the sleep patterns within participants, they found that participants reported lesser sleep in months when they experienced higher stress. They found a 67% variation in sleep quality within participants, and a 33% variation between participants. They found that “university students who were more independent from parental care experienced lower quality sleep” (Galambos, Howard, & Maggs, 2010, p. 347). They ascribed this aspect to financial stress, sleeping in noisy hostel environments and to the requirement to put in long hours of work to support college education. They ascribed the phenomenon of females sleeping less than males to their relatively greater anxiety over finances and nostalgia for home. The researchers felt that sleep should be a criterion for parents to decide whether to send their wards to hostel for the first year at university. The researchers found that occasions of negative affect and stress coincided with times of less positive sleep. Unlike Trockel et al, they found alcohol to be positively correlated to such stressful occasions and the resultant poorer sleep. Surprisingly, the researchers found that positive experiences generally did not predict sleep quantity or quality. However, there existed a covariation of sleep quality with socializing. They found that socializing preceded a longer night’s sleep. They found that during the periods when sleep quantity was affected, sleep quality was affected as well. The researchers thus concluded that stress played a major role in sleep patterns, and that sleep quality and quantities were equally important (Galambos, Howard, & Maggs, 2010).
The study by Galambos is representative of new realizations amongst the scientific community about the equal importance of sleep quantity as well as sleep quality in matters relating to sleep deprivation. Their study, like others, depended upon reporting of data by participants, and is therefore prone to error. Their approach of following the sleep pattern of participants over the course of the academic year yielded unique perspectives and inferences.
Stephen P. Gilbert of Minnesota State University and Cameron C. Weaver of Oklahoma State University (2010) carried out a similar study to determine whether sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality was associated with lower academic performance. Gilbert and Weaver found that poor sleep quality was associated with lower academic performance for non-depressed students. Their findings stressed on the importance of sleep quality as well as quantity in predicting academic performance. They found that half the participants were having poorer sleep quality than those diagnosed with sleep disorders, and therefore of the opinion that if unchecked, poor sleep patterns could have deleterious cognitive, social and medical effects on the students in future. Their study reflected Galambos et al (2010) with the finding that females slept more poorly than males. They concluded that college psychologists need to factor in sleep patterns while diagnosing reasons for poor academic performance of students. They recommended psycho-educational information to students highlighting the importance of good sleep patterns (Gilbert & Weaver, 2010). Gilbert et al echoed Galambos et al in the assertion that sleep quality and quantity were equally important. Their study was unique in its approach to link psychosomatic issues together amidst the broader canvas of sleep deprivation amongst college students. Their warning to parents and school administrators that if sleep deprivation is not halted, students could slide into psychological disorders is therefore of paramount importance for the health and wellbeing of future generations of college students.
Shelley D. Hershner and Ronald D. Chervin (2014) reviewed existing literature on the current prevalence of sleepiness and sleep deprivation among college students to determine the role of sleep in learning and memory. They found that most college students are sleep deprived because they go to sleep late and wake up for classes before they get adequate sleep. They were unique amongst other researchers in their approach to the problem, with their recognition of biological factors at play in the issue of sleep deprivation. While previous researchers had ascribed the problem to social and emotional issues, Hershner and Chervin highlighted the biological aspects of “circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep drive” (Hershner & Chervin, 2014, p. 74). They held the circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep drive be the reason wy many students felt more awake in the evenings, thus having difficulty in falling asleep till later. They found that the tendency to sleep later diminished, as the students got older. They highlighted the claims of previous researchers that sleepiness and irregular sleep schedules negatively impacted learning, memory and performance. They ascribed this phenomenon to the fact that procedural memory is dependent on REM (rapid eye movement) and declaratory memory (knowing what) is dependent on non REM sleep. Going by this premise, the authors found that ‘all-nighters’, with no sleep, would invariably prove to be counter-productive, as such efforts would impair memory due to lack of REM and non REM sleep. The authors found that the common causes of sleep deprivation were inadequate sleep hygiene, resulting from use of alcohol, caffeine and energy drinks, technology and sleep disorders. Their focus on REM and non REM sleep was an aspect not covered by previous researchers. They corroborated Trockel et al (2000) and Galambos et al (2010) in determining that there was an association between sleep patterns and GPA. They further held that students with sleep disorders do not achieve optimal academic performance. Apart from academic performance, the authors found sleep deprivation to negatively affect driving in the same manner as increased alcohol levels in the bloodstream. They mirrored Pilcher et al (1997) and Gilbert et al (2010) in their assertion that sleep deprivation was positively correlated with depression. They echoed Gilbert et al (2010) with the suggestion that positive educational programs could play a role in arresting the trend of increasing sleep deprivation amongst students (Hershner & Chervin, 2014).
The studies mentioned above have gone into all aspects of sleep deprivation amongst college students and the impact it has on social and academic aspects. Over time, there has been a growing realization that sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity when discussing the effect of sleep deprivation. While Pilcher et al (1997) have argued in favor of the importance of sleep quality over sleep quantity, Trockel et al (2000) had concentrated on sleep quantity as evidenced from wake-up times. Galambos et al (2010) determined that sleep quality was as important as sleep quantity, a view echoed by Gilbert et al (2010) and Hershner et al (2014). Gilbert et al posed a somber warning to school administrators and parents that should sleep deprivation not be arrested, students could slide into psychological and mental disorders. Shelley and Chervin (2014) shed fresh light on the subject, focusing on biological and hormonal aspects. Thus, it is important for college students to take care of both sleep quality and quantity to ensure that their academic performance and social life is not inhibited.
All the researchers in the studies analyzed have relied on self-reporting from participants to collate data of sleep patterns. Self-reporting has inherent danger of incorrect reporting. The option of previous researchers was limited to self-reporting as the alternative of creating control and experimental groups under observation for sleep patterns would have been very expensive and unmanageable. However, with current day digital wearable devices, this limitation could be obviated in any future studies.
Galambos, N., Howard, A., & Maggs, J.L. (2010). Rise and fall of sleep quantity and quality with student experiences across the first year of university. Journal of Research on Adolescence 21/2: 343-349. Retrieved July 05, 2015, from EBSCOHost. DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00679.x
Gilbert, S.P., & Weaver, C.C. (2010). Sleep quality and academic performance in university students: A wake-up call for college psychologists. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 24: 295-306. Retrieved July 05, 2015, from EBSCOHost. DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2010.509245
Hershner, S.D., & Chervin, R.D. (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and Science of Sleep 6: 73-84. Retrieved July 05, 2015, from EBSCOHost. DOI: 10.2147/NSS.S62907
Pilcher, J.J., Ginter, D.R., & Sadowsky, B. (1997). Sleep quality versus sleep quantity: Relationships between sleep and measures of health, well-being and sleepiness in college students. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 42/6: 583-596. Retrieved July 05, 2015, from EBSCOHost. DOI: 10.1016/S0022-3999(97)00004-4
Trockel, M.T., Barnes, M., & Egget, D.L. (2000). Health-related variables and academic performance among first-year college students: Implications. Journal of American College Health 49: 125-131. Retrieved July 05, 2015, from EBSCOHost.